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Yarn For More

Possible to get funding from organizations that provide support as they prefer to fund entire artisan communities and not just one family.

She helped the niche revival of the almostextinct traditional sari that used to be worn by the Goan tribal Kunbi women before the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century. But textile designer and weaver of repute Poonam Pandit, who helped rescue the traditional weaves from the brink of extinction, continues to stay in Goa and work closely with the weavers. “After the completion of my project with Wendell Rodericks, which concluded with creating a collection of saris and fabrics that put Goa’s handloom textiles into the spotlight, I continued to work closely with the weavers on my own accord. I created my label Kalakar to breathe new life into old looms and provided a new market for the weaver’s weaves. This gave me a soulful reason to stay in Goa, the place I had grown to love,” she explains. Pandit, a National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) graduate from Delhi, works directly with the weavers and there are no middlemen involved. “I source the yarn, get it dyed, deliver it to the weaver, make the designs, oversee the making, do quality control, finishing, branding, marketing and selling,” she says. Pandit says the focus of her work has been to preserve the old-world method of weaving passed down through generations, by giving it a contemporary look for today’s market. “It is relevant to present times as this traditional process of fabric making is not only environment friendly and homegrown, but also signifies slow mindful living,” she says. “With a background in textile design and having worked in this field for over 22 years besides being a weaver myself, I do have a fair understanding of the medium. I have immense respect for the weaving tradition and the finesse of hand needed to make the Goan fabric.” To revitalise the craft, Pandit and her team continues to use traditional methods, while experimenting with materials and techniques to create limited run scarves and fabrics of exquisite quality and authentic design. The products are sold online and at select boutique stores in Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry and in the UK. Pandit says the meticulous process of weaving followed at the weaver’s home and activities around the loom are culturally rooted and reflective of local ethos. “Being a part of this tradition on the brink of extinction and working with the craft through my underground Goan label is what keeps me going,” she says.

What made you take up Wendell Rodricks’ invitation to work with Goan weavers?

I developed a keen interest in traditional craft practises during my education in textile design at NIFT, Delhi. As a part of a documentation project for the course, I visited Barmer in Rajasthan and was fascinated by the work and lifestyle of artisan communities. However, because of lack of opportunities in the craft sector, I took up a job in a commercial export house in Delhi, where the majority of my work was with handloom weaves. After spending 12 years in Delhi working with furnishing/garment export and liaison organisations, fashion designers, government organisations, NGOs, educational institutions as well as artisanal textile groups across the country, I wanted to move to a peaceful place and do more interesting work.

So, I wrote to Wendell Rodricks, the most prominent face of fashion in Goa. We met at SNDT in Mumbai where he was impressed to see my portfolio of handloom weaves. He asked me to initiate a project for him, researching Goan handloom and the Kunbi sari. In 2009, I landed in Goa to work on the project and that’s how my journey into the fascinating world of Goan weaves began.

You are reinventing weaves, what were the challenges that you have faced till now?

Finding manpower to increase production capacity and scale up has always been a challenge. My finances are limited and it hasn’t been possible to get funding from organisations that provide support as they prefer to fund entire artisan communities and not just one family. It is difficult to find suppliers to provide raw material in small quantities as they generally look for large orders. Getting hold of a skilled carpenter when parts of the old weaving mechanisms need repair is not easy. I work with a shelter for women in distress for knotting and finishing of the woven scarves. I train the women in making fringes, sewing the label and clipping. This way they are able to get work and earn while staying at the shelter and looking after their small children. The challenge is that their stay at the shelter is short term and it becomes difficult to keep identifying and training someone new. In this current Covid crisis our sales have been badly hit as we stock at local boutique stores on consignment basis where customers are scarce and there are no international tourists who make a major part of the clientele for buying scarves.

Did “wellwishers” warn you not to get involved with a dying craft that had almost no future?

I was warned several times. Well-wishers gradually understood that the weaver’s family and I enjoy working together and reinventing the weaves with new innovations in design. The label Kalakar, our labour of love is now a decade old and we are moving forward slowly but surely.

Tell us about your meeting the last living artisan of Goa’s very own weaving technique, Baburao Babaji Tilve. Was it easy opening a dialogue with him and the weavers?

After meeting a few disillusioned old weavers who shut operations several years ago, I had little hope but kept searching. When I reached the village of Palyem in Pernem district of North Goa, my heart soared as I heard the sound of a loom coming from the direction of the weaver’s home. There was a traditional Puncha being woven on an old wooden loom. The home belonged to Baburao Babaji Tilve, also known as Kaka which affectionately means grandfather in Konkani. Weaving since the 1950’s, Kaka used to run a full-fledged handloom workshop that gave employment to almost half his village. Having learnt the craft from his father, he passed on the knowledge to his sons and brothers. Over the years, demand for their weaves had been waning and there was competition from cheap power loom imitations, most of the looms were sold for firewood. When Kaka figured out my respect for his ancestral profession and gauged my knowledge of weaving, I was allowed into the weaver’s world and would visit every day to understand the process. During the course of documenting the weaving process, I asked Kaka if we could work together and make something new. By now he had full confidence in my ability and he agreed, that is when our paths got interwoven.

Weren’t they sceptical about working with a designer considering they must have been unsure about how consistently they would get work?

They had never worked with a designer before and took up the work just like I had, as a project to experience, create and earn.

Did you work directly with the weavers or involve middlemen?

I work directly with the weavers and there are no middlemen involved. I source the yarn, get it dyed, deliver it to the weaver, make the designs, oversee the making, do quality control, finishing, branding, marketing and selling.

Working closely with the weavers using traditional methods, did you ever feel you needed to understand the medium better?

With a background in textile design and having worked in this field for over 22 years besides being a weaver myself, I do have a fair understanding of the medium. I have immense respect for the weaving tradition and the finesse of hand needed to make the Goan fabric.

On one hand, we have fashion where everything is about fast-changing trends and on the other are weavers, especially Goans who are famous for their laid-back lifestyle with no clue about fashion cycles, seasons, deliveries and deadlines? How did you bridge the gap?

We do not follow fast fashion trends, in fact, our practise is just the opposite. We hand craft, slow fashion, artisanal collectibles that are long lasting and environment friendly. When it comes to deliveries and deadlines, we work with enough lead time that suits our pace of production.

When did you think of launching your own label Kalakar? Describe the endeavour briefly?

After the completion of my project with Wendell, which concluded with creating a collection of saris and fabrics that put Goa’s handloom textiles into the spotlight, I continued to work closely with the weavers on my own accord. I created my label Kalakar to breathe new life into old looms and provided a new market for the weaver’s weaves. This gave me a soulful reason to stay in Goa, the place I had grown to love. To revitalise the craft, we continue to use traditional methods, while experimenting with materials and techniques to create limited run scarves and fabrics of exquisite quality and authentic design. The products are sold online and at select boutique stores in Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry and in the UK. Kaka kept weaving for many years till he got ill and had to stop. He recovered well and now oversees the work while the sons take up the weaving.

Are the local weavers working full time with you at Kalakar?

The weavers do not work full time for me, although the entire family gets involved at some stage or the other of weaving. Kaka’s youngest son starches the yarn which is a crucial process that strengthens the warp threads. His main work is farming in the family-owned fields. The youngest brother winds yarn on bobbins besides helping out with denting and drafting processes. He also helps out in household activities. One of the sons has a full-time job but weaves during his time off. Kaka himself runs a small grocery store besides overseeing the weaving. Various family members lend a hand during the process of warping. I too get involved in free-lance consultancy projects besides running Kalakar.

It’s been a decade since you launched Kalakar. What has been the experience of creating woven compositions that draw upon the narrative of fibre, from the natural old world, into the modern and technologic future world?

The focus of my work has been to preserve the old-world method of weaving passed down through generations, by giving it a contemporary look for today’s market. It is relevant to present times as this traditional process of fabric making is not only environment friendly and homegrown, but also signifies slow mindful living. The designs enhance the character of the Goan weave and are minimalist, constructivist, modernist, linear, textural, colour blocked and many times experimental like the supplementary weft jersey fringe and light reflective series. Since we are not driven by mass produce and fast fashion, we take time in making painstakingly specialised patterns. We use materials ranging from naturally dyed organic cotton to contemporary technological and recycled fibres that push the boundaries of conventional weaving. It is all about a mix of the old and new.

What keeps you going?

When a craft tradition is provided a little support and space, it finds new ways to survive. Even simple traditions need to be preserved and allowed to evolve. Goan weaving might not be as exquisite as the brocades or Jamdanis of our country, but it does deserve its place in the history of handmade textiles of India. The very nature and properties of the indigenous fabric, make it perfect to wear in the climate and environs of its place of origin. This itself highlights the relevance and need for revival and preservation of the weave.

The soft, absorbent, pervious and light fabric is hard to keep away, on the tropical coast. Singles count – untwisted threads, lend the fabric its softness and absorbency. It takes passion and skill to weave hundreds of these without breaking. Starching with wheat flour gives resilience to the threads when stretched on the loom and undergoing the weaving process. Every single strand that constitutes the fabric is touched by hands and handled with precision and care. The meticulous process of weaving followed at the weaver’s home and activities around the loom are culturally rooted and reflective of local ethos. Being a part of this tradition on the brink of extinction and working with the craft through my underground Goan label – Kalakar, is what keeps me going.

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